Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar yesterday confirmed Government will allow the “in-built delay” of the Parliament to run its course, meaning Government will not invoke its powers under the new Standing Orders to start the debate next Tuesday. Instead, emergency financial sector reform legislation will be debated on that day.
“The Parliament’s in-built delay procedure will proceed, to best achieve the result where persons were asking for a delay,” Persad-Bissessar told Newsday. “There is an in-built delay mechanism in the bicameral chamber. The bill will be introduced on August 19 and a date will be set for debate on a subsequent sitting.”
The Prime Minister however, stated Government would not withdraw the bill. She said there was need to debate, “emergency” legislation on the Financial Action Task Force.
Though the Prime Minister did not set a time-line, it is understood the Constitution (Amendment) Bill could be debated on August 26, two weeks from now. This would take place two weeks before the Budget presentation, which has been announced for September 8.
Under the new Standing Orders, the Government Whip in the Senate has the power to move that a bill be read a second time “forthwith” upon introduction. In light of the decision to proceed with financial sector legislation, it is understood this power will not be invoked, as has been reportedly proposed previously.
The Constitution (Amendment) Bill was passed yesterday morning after a marathon two-day sitting at the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain, at 4.04 am by a margin of 23 votes for, 14 votes against and one abstention in a conscience vote which saw two senior COP Mps, Tunapuna’s Winston Dookeran and San Fernando West’s Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, rebel. Before the bill takes legal effect it must be approved by the Senate and then proclaimed by President Anthony Carmona.
The Senate was due to meet next Tuesday and Wednesday to debate the Constitution reform legislation and financial sector legislation on each day respectively. However, sources yesterday confirmed the Wednesday sitting has been scrapped and the debate on financial sector legislation has been pulled forward to next Tuesday, replacing the planned debate on the Constitution reforms.
In closing the debate early yesterday morning, Persad-Bissessar responded to concerns over the criticism of the pace of the passage of the far-reaching reforms. She noted there is an in-built delay in the Parliament, through the transition of bills from the House of Representatives to the Senate.
“Those calling for a delay fail to appreciate that we have a bicameral legislature,” the Prime Minister said. “That is an in-built delay in the passage of legislation. There is that built-in check and balance. It is not all done today.”
The Prime Minister however yesterday morning signaled that the bill will move forward, and said the legislation had to be passed now given the full parliamentary agenda of the People’s Partnership administration, including the Budget, debate which traditionally dominates Parliament time. She did not, however, specify a time-line.
The move to push back the debate on the legislation emerged in the wake of a rebellion by the two COP MPs in the Parliament, and as the business organisations, such as Chamber of Industry and Commerce, expressed concerns over the runoff provision. Planning Minister Dr Bhoe Tewarie also called for a delay of the process of debate.
The Senate has 30 seats, with ten UNC Senators, one NJAC Senator, nine Independents and six Opposition Senators. There are two COP Senators, while two Senators (Gary Griffith and Gerald Hadeed are listed as undeclared on the Parliament’s website). The legislation requires a simple majority.
Government Whip in the Senate Ganga Singh — who last week had indicated the Senate was poised to debate the Constitution reforms — did not immediately respond to calls and messages. Newsday was informed that Singh was out of the country until Saturday.
During the early-morning vote on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, the COP line split in the conscience vote, with COP political leader Prakash Ramadhar, the St Augustine MP, and Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism Dr Lincoln Douglas, the Lopinot/Bon Air West MP, both voting with UNC MPs in support.
In the debate, Ramadhar had said it was important to implement promised reforms. Douglas’ vote was regarded as a surprise by some as he had called for more debate on the runoff procedure or its excision from the bill, a call which was not heeded.
COP founder, Dookeran, and the party’s chairman, Seepersad-Bachan, the Minister of Public Administration, voted against the measures citing process. Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration, Rodger Samuel, the Arima MP, abstained. He did not contribute to the debate.
All of the PNM members present voted against the bill. ILP Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner also voted against the bill.
It was a morning of high drama in the Parliament, with Opposition MPs shouting “No!” at all stages of the legislation and even voting against a procedural motion to report the legislation to the floor of the House after three amendments were made during the committee stage. They called for a first division on that motion, the results of which mirrored the final vote.
The amendments, tabled by Persad-Bissessar, were to tighten aspects of the bill by:
1) ensuring the President’s power to appoint a prime minister is not unduly fettered by the new provisions;
2) limiting to three days the first stage of Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) verification of the two initial applicants for a recall petition;
3) avoiding multiple recalls.
The Prime Minister, during the committee stage, said, “Out of an abundance of caution, even though we do not share the view, we will table an amendment in the committee stage to make it abundantly clear that the President will have the full powers as under the Constitution and where there is a clear majority of seats, the President will proceed to appoint as prime minister the leader of the party that has a majority.” She continued, “It is only when there is not a clear majority” that the delay will arise.
Of the second amendment, the Prime Minister said, “We will put in place a time-limit for the EBC to verify support for the application of a recall. Previously, there was no time-frame, now we are proposing a time-frame of three days to that first application for a petition.”
Of the third amendment, “To avoid multiple recalls and mischief there will be a limit to the number of recalls that can be applied for and followed through in a particular instance.”
The Prime Minister denied claims that pockets of Cabinet had been in the dark on the bill.
“The full Cabinet deliberated on the matter on more than one occasion,” Persad-Bissessar said. “If it is some have said they did not know, perhaps they were not there that day.”
She further stated the 50 percent runoff procedure — which will give a second-placing party a chance to contest a second poll against the first place party – is not in contradiction with proportional representation, as claimed by some, including Dookeran and Seepersad-Bachan.
“Putting this system in place will not preclude or conflict or violate in any way proportional representation,” she said. “I want to make that clear.” She noted the Constitutional Reform Commission has called for a proportional representation system in the Senate – a measure requiring a special majority – which would work alongside a first past the post House of Representatives. She said plans for the Senate reforms remain in train and if implemented would see the proportion of votes for the first chamber shape the second.
“We introduced proportional representation in the Local Government elections and those on the other side got more aldermen than they would have gotten,” Persad-Bissessar said. Of criticisms that many other reforms have been recommended, the Prime Minister said, “The Commission recommended simple majority measures first, then special majority measures. You cannot expect that in one shot.” She said Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley wrongly described the runoff procedure in terms of an alternate preferential system in his contribution.
The Prime Minister also said the moves were not designed for her to stay in power. She said if this were the case, the Government would not be limiting prime minister’s terms, including her own.
“Is the Opposition Leader saying that he wants to do 25 years like former Prime Minister Eric Williams?” Persad-Bissessar said. “I am term-limiting myself.”